Traditionally, the Managing Director of the Porterhouse Group Liam Laharte would have limited his talents to merely looking after the six bars in the Porterhouse Group in Dublin, London and New York.
“I was a barman for half-a-dozen years before we bought our first outlet in Bray,” he remembers as we sit in that selfsame outlet in Bray early one February evening, “I was very much hands-on and when we ended up with the five bars and nightclub my role – from an operational point-of-view – was to ensure that they were running OK, dealing on a daily basis with the different managers.”
In last two years however, especially with the departure of the Group’s Accountant/Financial Controller on maternity leave, he’s had to take over the wider Porterhouse portfolio.
Office-based now, he keeps a eye on 15 different companies some related to bars and restaurants, others related to the brewery and distillery.
London, New York & Dublin differences
Still, a publican’s always a publican, even when he’s not, so working between London, Dublin and New York, has he had the chance to observe clear differences between the three on-trade markets?
He responds in the affirmative, quipping, “Bearing in mind that I’m just back from New York last Friday and was in the office all day today and am going to London tomorrow, I’m in a good position to answer that question.
“There are more similarities between London and New York even though New York is probably nearly 50% food whereas London – to any publican’s delight – is only 10% food, but on a high turnover. Here, we’re 25-30% on food which is something that I’d have been more concerned about 10 years ago.”
To maintain turnover in Dublin they’ve had to work hard around food to counter declining drink sales. But he’d lump New York and London together because they offer similar margins.
“In London and New York costs are lower so net margins are higher,” he explains.
Big Apple on-trade
One of the surprising things about New York is the high cost of food but that apart, we could take note of one or two other differences and learn from the Big Apple.
New York pays its Front Of House staff differently for example.
“They only get a basic of $7 per hour with the rest of the salary being made up in tips which accounts for around 15% of every bill on average,” says Liam, “You can see how hard the staff work to achieve their salary; it’s somewhat self-regulatory in that if someone’s not carrying their weight the rest of the staff will complain to the boss about them, so the staff work really hard for you in New York.”
What are the consumer trends in New York at present?
“Craft beer has been there for a good 10 years now,” says Liam, “I don’t know where that’s going to end but the more middle-class a bar is, the less international beers will be seen there.
“Wines are also very strong in New York. Brown spirits are very strong too with gin and vodka tailing-off…. Gin wouldn’t be anywhere as strong in New York as it would be in London.
“In New York it’s very food-led and they’re more into their expensive vodkas.”
Local authority issues
The difference between dealing with the local authorities in New York and Dublin bears scrutiny too.
“Certainly bureaucracy is probably less in New York where they don’t put obstacles in your way,” he says, “When things are going well, then dealing with the city is easy. But if you hit a problem like we did after Hurricane Sandy, when you’re down, things can get a bit tough there.
“When you buy alcohol, you have to pay within 30 days or the wholesaler can have you closed down.
“When we were hit with Hurrican Sandy there was all sorts of talk from City Hall that they’d relax this law for people who got back up in business, but as soon as we got open again, that credit rule was re-invoked.”
Big Smoke on-trade
London’s a bit like New York, he believes.
“There are plenty of customers out there as opposed to Dublin where there are a lot of people fighting for business in a market that’s very similar. There’s plenty of business to go round in a big city.”
But he notes too that the service can be a bit hit-and-miss in UK bars.
“There’s no real incentive in the UK to be fantastic at your job. Normally the manager gets well-paid and the pay rates are not great down the line.”
Traditionally, bar staff in Dublin would be way ahead of staff in the UK on service but while it’s better again in New York, service there can be somewhat mercenary or false at the same time, he adds.
Food is quite important in London, too, but there’s a big difference between a bar, a restaurant and a gastropub, he points out.
“If you go into a regular bar in London and buy food you may have to pay for it as you order it. There’s no table service in general.
“In the higher end bars in London food is very strong and there’s a marked difference between a regular bar and a high end bar which would come down to food and service.”
But ‘brewpubs’ are becoming a thing of the past. Today, it’s craft beer pubs – pubs where you can buy beer that’s produced locally.
‘Craft beer’ has been a little bit slower to catch-on in the UK on-trade because of tied-houses but in the last year or two it’s become very strong in London although he’s not sure about the rest of the country.
“There’s about 70 new breweries per year in the UK, most of them have been craft. We might have been a bit ahead of our time 20 years ago when we started all of this,” he reckons.
With the Porterhouse Central’s Lillie’s Bordello being one of Dublin’s most prominent nightclubs, he’s observed that with changing consumer profiles clubs here are closing down.
There are not so many of them in New York or London.
“London tends to be a very early city with people heading for the last bus or train by 12pm so there’s not a huge demand for nightclubs in London,” he says, whereas in New York the bars stay open until 4am anyway.
Here, you pay a fortune for your late bar licence and this is one of the reasons that nightclubs cannot survive, he says.
Nightclubs needed the door money to pay for the insurance and licence.
“Now, the difference between a late bar and a nightclub tends to be defined by the insurance premium required. If you have a pay-in policy, the people who pay-in tend to pre-drink and girls tend to wear high-heels – a disaster for the owner and his insurance company.”
In the last year the diminishing number of insurance companies that will quote for a nightclub makes it extremely expensive to run one. Unless there are changes in the near future there will be very few nightclubs as we know them left in this country, predicts Liam.
That would be a shame for a place that likes to party every bit as much as those tourists coming here from London or New York.